Sanger, Steve 1946–
Chairman and chief executive officer, General Mills
Education: DePauw University, BA, 1968; University of Michigan, MBA, 1970.
Family: Married Karen (maiden name unknown); children: two.
Career: Proctor & Gamble Company, 1970–1973, marketing and sales; General Mills, 1974–1983, various positions; 1983–1986, vice president and general manager of Northstar Division; 1986, vice president and general manager of new business development; 1986–1988, president of Yoplait USA; 1988–1991, president of Big G Division; 1989–1991, senior vice president; 1991-1992, executive vice president; 1992–1996, vice chairman of the board; 1993–1995, president; 1995–, chairman and chief executive officer.
Awards: Named one of the "Top 25 Managers" by BusinessWeek, 2001; William H. Albers Industry Relations Award, 2002.
■ Steve Sanger developed a reputation as a savvy marketer in his rise to the position as chairman and chief executive officer of General Mills. Sanger gained an interest in marketing when, as a college student, he promoted Motown concerts being held at DePauw University. After receiving an MBA from the University of Michigan and working for three years at Proctor & Gamble Company, he joined General Mills in 1974. He rose up the management ranks at the company until he was ultimately elected chairman and CEO in 1995. Sanger was known for being a relaxed manager who was cordial to subordinates and who encouraged debate.
LEARNING MARKETING BY SELLING CONCERT TICKETS
Sanger enrolled at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, where he was elected president of the student union. His first experience in marketing came as an undergraduate student when he began to promote Motown concerts that were being held on campus. The experience changed the direction of Sanger's career. "The main lesson that I learned is that it's a lot easier to be a good marketer if you've got a good product," he told BusinessWeek. "It was a lot easier to sell tickets to the Temptations than the Electric Prunes" (March 26, 2001).
Sanger considered promoting concerts as a career after graduating from DePauw in 1968. He also considered attending law school. He rejected both ideas, however, and instead enrolled at the University of Michigan, earning an MBA in 1970. After earning his graduate degree, Sanger was hired by Proctor & Gamble Company, where he held a series of marketing and sales positions.
MOVED TO GENERAL MILLS
Sanger moved to a position with General Mills in 1974. Over the next nine years he worked in a variety of marketing positions within the company's consumer food businesses. The company began to take note of his marketing skills, and in 1983 he was promoted to the position of vice president and general manager of the company's Northstar Division. In 1986 he became the general manager of the company's new business development division for a time before being named president of Yoplait USA, the company's yogurt producer. His tenure with Yoplait was successful, and his leadership allowed the company to surpass Dannon Company in yogurt sales.
Sanger was rewarded for his success with Yoplait in 1988, when he was named president of the company's Big G cereal division, the largest and most profitable division in the company. During the following year he was promoted to senior vice president. His ascension continued in 1991, when he was named executive vice president of General Mills with responsibility over both Yoplait yogurt and Big G cereals as well as International Foods.
ASSUMED POSITION OF PRESIDENT, THEN CEO OF GENERAL MILLS
Sanger was named to the General Mills board of directors in 1992. He earned a reputation as a sharp marketer of consumer goods. He was also known for his sense of humor and interpersonal skills. In 1993 Bruce Atwater, chief executive officer of General Mills, was nearing the company's mandatory retirement age, and Sanger was one of three vice chairmen who were believed to be potential successors. Sanger became the heir apparent in 1993, when company announced that Sanger had been elected to the position of president.
Sanger's relaxed demeanor caused some analysts to question whether he would be an effective CEO at General Mills. Nonetheless, the company remained confident in his ability to improve production and sales. "Steve was identified as someone with great potential," Atwater told BusinessWeek. "He had interesting ideas about how to develop new products and get new business" (March 26, 2001). In 1995 Sanger was elected chairman and chief executive officer of General Mills.
CHANGING THE ATMOSPHERE AT GENERAL MILLS
General Mills had long been known as a conservative company, requiring employees to wear a uniform consisting of a dark suit and a white shirt. Upon taking office, Sanger immediately repealed this requirement. He also ordered the company jet to play rock-and-roll music instead of classical music. Moreover, on the night before his first board meeting as chairman, he chose to attend a Rolling Stones concert. He was known to recite song lyrics in board meetings. Said one associate, "He's like a Doris Day of guys" (BusinessWeek, January 8, 2001).
Sanger's unorthodox philosophy was not limited to dress codes and flight music. Shortly after he became CEO, he sought to improve productivity by sending technicians to watch the performance of pit crews at a NASCAR race. The technicians subsequently devised a method for converting a plant line in 20 minutes, compared to five hours. Sanger was known for being friendly to his subordinates and for welcoming open discussion.
Sanger's relaxed approach belied a more aggressive business strategy. He cut costs in key areas and effectively raised prices of cereals in the late 1990s without affecting sales. The company's sales increased at a rate of 6 percent per year between 1995 and 2001, and in 1999 General Mills surpassed Kellogg Company as the leading cereal producer.
Sanger was recognized and honored within his industry. In 2001 he was named one of the "Top 25 Managers" by BusinessWeek, and he received the 2002 William H. Albers Industry Relations Award, which recognizes industry leadership and community service.
TOUGH TIMES FOLLOWING MERGER WITH PILLSBURY
In 2001 General Mills completed a $10.4 billion merger with rival Pillsbury in a move that was supposed to be Sanger's "crowning achievement" (July 1, 2002). Sanger himself referred to the move as a "transformative event." However, the merger led to some tough times. After announcing the move in July 2000, the companies had to resolve certain antitrust issues with federal regulators. This process took 16 months, much longer than originally expected.
Rivals of General Mills began to make gains. General Mills lost its market lead in the cereal category to Kellogg in 2001 and lost ground in several other categories as well, including refrigerated dough and boxed prepared meals. Moreover, some commentators noted the perception that General Mills did not provide complete support for Pillsbury products.
Sanger and General Mills took another hit in 2003 and 2004, when the Securities and Exchange Commission announced that it would investigate potential violations of federal disclosure laws. Supporters and even some critics downplayed the investigation, noting that Sanger and General Mills were not likely types to have violated securities laws. Though Sanger maintained his popularity during 2004, the problems nevertheless tested his mettle as chief executive.
Sanger was active in business and civic groups, serving on the boards of Target Corporation, the Donaldson Company, Catalyst, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, the Minnesota Business Partnership, Grocery Manufacturers of America, and the Guthrie Theatre Foundation.
See also entries on General Mills, Inc. and Proctor & Gamble Company in International Directory of Company Histories.
sources for further information
Forster, Julie, "General Malaise at General Mills," BusinessWeek, July 1, 2002, p. 68.
——, "The Lucky Charm of Steve Sanger," BusinessWeek, March 26, 2001, p. 75.
Kennedy, Tony, "Steven W. Sanger Named General Mills President," Star Tribune, October 26, 1993.
"Sanger Receives Albers Award for Industry Service,"Supermarket News, May 13, 2002, p. 17.
St. Anthony, Neal, "The Soldier and the Salesman," Star Tribune, February 15, 2004.
"The Top 25 Managers: Managers to Watch in 2001," BusinessWeek, January 8, 2001, p. 67.
—Matthew C. Cordon